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Cross-Cultural Names: German American girls

September 3, 2019 Abby Sandel

Cross-cultural names: Naming across languages means extra challenges – and more choices, too! Let’s help this family find the right cross-cultural name for their German-American daughter.

Anna writes:

My husband and I are at an impasse for deciding on a name for our baby girl due end of November and would welcome advice. My husband is German so the name has to work in both languages. We don’t want anything too popular (at least in the US), bot not too obscure. It can’t start with an S because initials would be SS.

Our son is Oskar, with the German spelling. I like that it is simple, strong and clear without too many options for nicknames. Our favorites are:

  • Clara
  • Lena
  • Louisa
  • Matilda
  • Miriam
  • Nina

I’m slightly concerned about pronunciation of some of these names and wouldn’t want her to be correcting people her whole life. We’d pronounce Clara with a long ‘a’ like Clahra, and Lena to rhyme with Elena.

Thanks for your help!

The Name Sage replies:

Naming across languages – even languages as similar as German and English – can be tricky. You’ve got a great list of names that could work, but here’s the question I think you’ll need to answer:

Do you want a name that works in English and German? Or one that is nearly identical in both languages? Because there’s definitely a difference.

Oskar fits into the latter category. Accents vary. Spelling, too. But Oskar is Oskar is Oskar.

If you prefer to go the nearly-identical route – and it sounds like that’s your comfort zone – it means saying good-bye to Clara and Lena. Can you insist on clahr-ah and lay-nah? Sure. But it requires effort. How will you feel if your daughter decides she prefers the American sound better?

Louisa, Matilda, Miriam, and Nina all sound much more similar in both languages. I wonder if you’d also like:

Elena – We typically pronounce Lena with a long ‘e’ sound in the US, but Elena? That’s more like Elaine. Would Elena appeal? It might not sound especially German, but it’s quite popular across Europe right now. Of course, it also ranks in the US Top 100, at Number 66, so perhaps that rules it out.

Lara – Just like the Elena/Lena puzzle, Lara can sound more like the German pronunciation of Clara. As a bonus, it’s familiar across Europe and relatively uncommon in the US, without being difficult to say or spell.

Lilly – American parents favor Lily over Lilly, while Germans opt for the double L. Since you’re used to saying Oskar-with-a-k, I assume you won’t mind introducing your daughter as Lilly-with-two-Ls. The downside: it’s quite popular in the US, with Lily at Number 31, and Lillian not far behind.

Marta – It’s a mystery to me why we don’t hear more of Marta in the US. (Martha, too.) But it remains rare, even though we all recognize the name. It’s short, simple, nickname-proof, and ever-so-slightly olde world.

Mila – The downside: it’s racing up US popularity charts, just like Mia and Maya not so long ago. And yet, it’s identical across both languages, and sounds great as a sister for Oskar. Still, at #14, maybe popularity is a deal-breaker.

Nora – Nora feels as classic as Clara, but it crosses the language barrier with a little more ease. And while it’s been a long-time Top 100 name in the US, it doesn’t seem trendy or fleeting.

Tessa – Tessa comes from Theresa, a traditional name still going strong in Germany. In the US, Tessa ranks Number 245. That might mark the sweet spot between familiar and too-popular. Plus, it sounds exactly the same in both languages.

Overall, my favorites are Marta from my list, and Louisa from yours. They sound like sisters for Oskar – traditional, vaguely European, but familiar in the US without being too common.

And yet, if you’re willing to overlook popularity concerns, I think Mila could make a stunning choice. It’s short, complete, and works in English and German beautifully. Your daughter might not be the only Mila in your circles of family and friends in either country, but the name’s appeal could outweigh the occasional repetition.

Now, my question to readers: when choosing names that need to work in two languages, do you favor names that change as little as possible? Or will you consider names that differ quite a bit?

Abby Sandel is the creator of name blog Appellation Mountain and writes Nameberry’s Name Sage column, offering wise advice on baby name questions submitted by Berries every other Wednesday.  Abby lives outside of Washington DC with her husband and two children, Alex and Clio. You can reach her on Facebook , Instagram and Pinterest. For a chance to have your

About the author

Abby

Abby Sandel is nameberry's Senior Editor and resident Name Sage. Look for her baby name news round-ups every Monday, and her Name Sage columns on Wednesdays. Abby is the creator of the baby name blog Appellation Mountain and mom to Alex and Clio. For a chance to have your questions answered, contact Abby at namesage@nameberry.com.

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